THE SEXUAL AND reproductive health and rights of adolescents can be a sensitive subject. But it is a subject we cannot ignore. This is particularly true in Ireland where many of the landmark cases that spurred legislative or social change on abortion have involved adolescent girls or young women – Miss X, Miss C, Miss D, Ms Y. And these are only the cases we know about.
A common thread running through these cases is that the girls at their centre tend to be some of the most marginalised in our society. Miss C was a member of the Travelling community; Miss D was in the care of the state; Ms Y was an asylum-seeker looking for the state’s protection.
Almost all were survivors of sexual violence.
This highlights just how discriminatory Ireland’s abortion laws are – the most marginalised women and girls bear the full burden of the abortion ban, while the more privileged can get around it by travelling abroad for a termination.
Questions being asked of the Irish government
It is not surprising, then, that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) questioned the Irish government about the country’s abortion laws.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was supposed to give effect to the 1992 ruling in the X case, which found that abortion is legal in Ireland when a pregnant woman or girl’s life is at risk, including the risk of suicide.
But would Miss X even have been able to access abortion services under this legislation?
We know that Ms Y couldn’t. Instead, media reports suggest that Ms Y faced repeated barriers preventing her from accessing the abortion she wanted, and was arguably subjected to coercion in being given only one option – to deliver prematurely by caesarean section.
The procedures in place for accessing abortion under the Act are extremely convoluted and difficult to understand, even for adults, let alone adolescent girls. As the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has highlighted, neither the Act nor the accompanying Guidance Document provide for age-appropriate and situation-appropriate pathways to assist girls and young women in accessing abortion services.
Until the government ensures its laws and policies are responsive to the needs and rights of the most marginalised girls and young women, access to legal abortion in Ireland will remain open only to those who know their rights and can skillfully advocate for themselves in the face of our complex health system.
A young girl’s understanding of her rights
Adolescent girls find themselves in murky territory when it comes to understanding whether they have a right to make autonomous decisions about their health and well-being.
The UNCRC highlights the importance of taking into account the “evolving capacity” of the child to be meaningfully involved in decisions about their health and lives.
However, there is no clear guidance in Ireland on how the capacity of the young person should be gauged in a healthcare setting. Without guidance, parents can have undue influence over a young person’s decision-making process. The C case shows how problematic unsupportive parental involvement can be. Girls should not have to go to court before their wishes are respected.
And what about the many, many adolescent girls whose circumstances fall outside the narrow terms of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act? If they cannot travel abroad, they are either forced to order abortion pills online, risking a 14 year prison sentence, or forced by the law to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
Recent events in Northern Ireland demonstrate that the threat of prosecution for self-administering medical abortion pills is very real. Even for those girls and young women who have the ability to travel, this is done at significant financial, physical and emotional cost.
At the Abortion Rights Campaign we believe that women and girls have the capacity to make the right decisions for themselves about their own bodies and the UNCRC has previously highlighted that the views of girls and young women must always be heard and respected in abortion decisions.
Ireland continues to fail women and girls in this regard. The state’s job is to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, protecting the right to health for all – it’s role is not to police the bodies of women and girls living here.
Major barriers remain preventing young women and adolescent girls from making autonomous decisions about their health and bodies, and exercising their rights.
Ireland under the microscope
Yesterday, the UN Committee brought the government to account, asking how it could reconcile the ban on abortion with its obligation to provide adolescents with appropriate medical services in line with the Convention.
The Committee also asked about the situation of girls who are victims of rape and incest, and was patently told that there is no provision for these girls unless they are suicidal.
This is in direct contravention of human rights standards.
Lastly, the question was raised as to whether the government intends to consult the people of Ireland to hear their opinion with regard to the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution.
The Abortion Rights Campaign welcomes the UN Committee on Children’s Rights reinforcing the calls of other UN Committees for the government to urgently take action to repeal the 8th Amendment and revise the law.
Repealing the 8th Amendment is a first step towards meaningful change for girls and women in Ireland.
Alison Spillane and Grace Wilentz lead on Policy and Advocacy for the Abortion Rights Campaign.